We’re not gamblers, but we’d wager that at least 90 percent of all acoustic guitar playing occurs within the first four frets of the guitar, or what we call “open position.” Under the circumstances, every guitarist should know plenty of open-position licks, especially when they’re playing blues and rock. The licks tend to be easy to play, and they make a great way to embellish the space between chords when you’re playing rhythm.
Spearheaded early on by such giants as Charley Patton and Son House, and later by Robert Johnson, acoustic country (and Delta) blues was the first music to feature improvised guitar lines—and most were performed in open position.
Marked by tasteful picking embellished with slides, quarter-note bends, and ringing open strings, those legends’ licks formed the basis for the extended neck excursions heard both in the blues (T-Bone Walker) and rock and roll (Chuck Berry).
The first four figures here demonstrate open-position blues licks in E. FIGURE 1A combines the E blues (E-G-A-Bb-B-D) and major pentatonic (E-F#-G#-B-C#) scales for a classic double-stop lick. FIGURE 1B adds a major 3rd (G#) to the minor pentatonic (E-G-A-B-D) scale for some timeless blues tension. FIGURE 1C switches gears to E major pentatonic for a different feel over an E7 harmony. Finally, FIGURE 1D uses the blues scale for a descending run that resolves to an E note one octave higher than where the line seems to be leading. This redirection is a common and effective move in the blues.
Country and bluegrass guitarists also rely strongly on acoustic guitars and open—position licks. Vastly underrated technicians, these guitarists ply their licks faster than a five-year-old on an ice cream cone in sweltering summer heat.
FIGURE 2 is a lick in the style of flat-picking legend Tony Rice. With its cool blues/ major-pentatonic roots and chromatic leading tones, this 180-bpm barnburner is a great lick for either country or bluegrass settings. The daring blues guitarist might also substitute this lick for a turnaround.
Not to be left out of the open-position Olympics, rock guitarists also find use for the occasional open-string lick. For example, Hendrix used them in the intro to “Hey Joe,” and Angus Young has twisted many guitarists sense of time with the 16th-note rest preceding his open-position minor pentatonic gem in “Back in Black.” Generally possessing some blues influence, the open-position rock lick is distinguished by its straight feel, as opposed to a shuffle. FIGURE 3 has a Hendrix-like vibe to it.
Culled strictly from the E minor pentatonic scale, the lick's hook lies in the quarter-step bends of the G note in the first measure. That quarter-step bend also kicks off the Angus Young–style open-position lick in FIGURE 4.